Exposure to asbestos is the greatest single cause of workplace deaths in the UK.
Recently, the widow of a former scaffolder, who was exposed to asbestos and died of lung cancer, won her battle for compensation. Bill Byrne, who died in 2002 aged 71, had worked for Lyndon Scaffolding and Mills Scaffolding in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr Byrne's brother and workmate had also died of lung cancer, due to asbestos exposure, seven years before his own death. Mr Byrne, his brother and others were regularly sent by their employers to put up scaffolding around power stations where asbestos was present.
In order to win the case, lawyers for Mrs Byrne had to show that, on the balance of probabilities, Mr Byrne's cancer was caused by asbestos exposure. This was difficult because there are other well-known causes of lung cancer, such as smoking. Medical evidence was presented, however, which showed that Mr Byrne's chances of developing lung cancer were significantly increased by his exposure to asbestos.
Mrs Byrne's case was also helped by evidence provided by those who had worked alongside her husband. Former colleagues explained how at the end of a day’s work it was normal for them to be covered in asbestos dust. Neither protective clothing nor facemasks were provided and no warnings were given about the health implications of asbestos.
An undisclosed five-figure sum was agreed upon.
The Compensation Act 2006 includes a provision that employers are to be jointly and severally liable for any compensation due to employees who have suffered injury as a result of exposure to asbestos fibres by more than one employer. This, in effect, overturned a previous decision of the House of Lords that responsibility for the damages payable should be apportioned amongst all those responsible, according to the degree to which they contributed to the chance of the worker contracting the disease.
Asbestos is most commonly found in buildings constructed or refurbished before 1985, although it may be present in those built more recently. Workers most at risk from exposure are those involved in building maintenance, repair or refurbishment work, such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. However, those who install computers, fire alarms, cabling or telecommunication systems are also at risk of disturbing asbestos or asbestos cement, thereby releasing the dangerous fibres into the air.
Employers with potential liabilities in this area should ensure that their insurance cover provides adequate protection in the event of a claim.